From Paris to Tigray, the world is afflicted by a crisis of identity

Tawfiq Alsaif

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Upon examining the latest events taking place all over the world, it seems clear that we are on the cusp of a new global crisis. The dramatic rise in ethnic intolerance and violence indicates that many individuals all over the world are facing a crisis of identity. I highly suspect that the motives behind the killing of the French teacher, Samuel Paty, in mid-October, and the subsequent attacks in southern France, then in the Austrian capital Vienna, are as straightforward as what was portrayed by the media.

All justifications have claimed that the events were instigated by the offensive caricatures of Prophet Mohammed, peace be upon him, that were published by a satirical newspaper five years ago.

In my opinion, the young men who carried out these violent acts of terror were driven by a psychological disorder that manifested itself in the form of religious or national fanaticism and intolerance, in addition to their grandiose delusions of mythical heroism that are entirely detached from reality.

These are symptoms of what we call an identity crisis.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, in the United States, 150 million citizens participated in the 2020 presidential elections. It is the highest voter turnout rate in 120 years. Former President Barack Obama said that this high percentage confirms the severe division that afflicts the American society.

This view was supported by the opinion polls that followed the elections. President-elect Joe Biden earned the support of non-traditional groups. He held 87 percent of the Black vote, 55 percent of the votes by college graduates, in addition to 62 percent of the votes by young people (between 18 and 29 years old).

According to Mr. Yasser al-Ghaslan, a journalist specializing in American affairs, it was Obama’s victory in 2008 that paved the way for a Trump presidency (since he is to some extent his social antithesis). The victory of Trump, then Biden, is an implicit indication of the intense tension between traditional Protestant Americans living in rural areas, and city dwellers composed of a wide mix of races and cultural affiliations.

As for the East, we have recently witnessed devastating armed clashes erupt due to the simmering, decades-long conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh, which is located within the territory of Azerbaijan, but is mostly inhabited by Armenians.

International media outlets have circulated a picture of an Azerbaijani soldier dismantling a cross from the roof of a church, as well as pictures of Armenian women weeping over the fate of a historic monastery, in fear of its destruction.

It is well known that the level of commitment to religious rituals in both countries is very weak; however, in times of crisis, people’s religious identity plays an effective mobilizing role.

Finally, I would like to refer to the ominous tensions that have resurfaced in Northern Ethiopia, between Tigray and the central government. There is no denying that this conflict is driven by economic and political factors, yet it is masquerading as ethnic discord.

This rapid walkthrough of recent events taking place in different parts of the world, indicates that the world may be on the verge of a troubling clash of identities, similar to what happened in the early nineties.

In this regard, I would like to note that the aim behind citing these incidents is to highlight the fact this recent apprehension towards religion (Islam in particular) is being used as a front and there is a much deeper cause for these conflicts.

My goal is to encourage Muslim scholars to look deeper and conduct further research to find the true motives behind the latest incidents, like what happened in Europe, instead of attributing them to religious intolerance and claims of identity bias. I say this because I know that a very large group of Muslims believe that Islam is in itself an identity, meaning that it is not a component that can be added to any other identity.

In fact, some even believe it to be parallel to, or in opposition of other identities. In my opinion, this is a distorted perspective, and it has contributed to involving our peaceful religion and its followers in futile conflicts that could have been avoided.

This article was originally published in, and translated from, Saudi Arabian outlet Asharq Al-Awsat.

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